“IT DOESN’T DE­FINE ME”

AS SHE PRE­PARES TO BE­COME A FIRST-TIME MOTHER, TEN­NIS SU­PER­STAR SER­ENA WILLIAMS RE­VEALS TO STEL­LAR WHY SHE WILL NEVER PUSH HER CHIL­DREN TO PLAY SPORT

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Contents - Pho­tog­ra­phy JEZ SMITH Styling NI­COLE BONYTHON-HINES Words JOR­DAN BAKER Fair

She’s one of the great­est ten­nis play­ers of all time. But Ser­ena Williams ad­mits her big­gest chal­lenge – moth­er­hood – is still to come, as she talks ex­clu­sively to Stel­lar about her fears, faith and fu­ture plans.

Her due date is fast ap­proach­ing, and Ser­ena Williams is grow­ing ner­vous. “I don’t think watch­ing birthing videos helps,” she says, ab­sent-mind­edly stroking her bloom­ing belly. “I ac­tu­ally think it makes it worse. Hav­ing a baby, noth­ing is guar­an­teed.”

It preys on her mind. And it comes up again when she’s talk­ing about how moth­er­hood might af­fect her ten­nis. “That’s the scari­est thing. [But] I think [giv­ing birth] will give me more strength, if that’s pos­si­ble, and a lot more con­fi­dence. I feel like I will be ready for any­thing.”

Her anx­i­ety il­lus­trates how re­lat­able Williams is, or how ter­ri­fy­ing birth is, or maybe both. Be­cause few would ex­pect any­thing ex­pe­ri­enced by so many women to faze some­one who has sur­vived de­bil­i­tat­ing in­juries, a pul­monary em­bolism and the death of a sis­ter – and, at 35, won the most re­cent Aus­tralian Open in sear­ing heat and straight sets while eight weeks preg­nant.

In fact, few women seem bet­ter equipped, phys­i­cally or men­tally, to take on child­birth. Coura­geous and un­apolo­getic, Williams rose from the courts of down­town LA to con­quer the up­tight ten­nis world, win­ning more grand slams than any other player ever. Her in­flu­ence reaches be­yond sport: she has danced in a Bey­oncé video, walked the red car­pets at the Van­ity

Os­car Party and Met Gala, forged a busi­ness em­pire, and be­come a fem­i­nist icon.

Yet she is ner­vous about hav­ing a baby. It’s en­dear­ing, and ex­poses vul­ner­a­bil­ity in a woman who seems in­domitable to so many. “I have so much re­spect for so many women [for giv­ing birth],” she says in her soft, breathy voice. “I am about to be a real woman now, you know? It’s go­ing to be some­thing in­cred­i­bly im­pres­sive to go through.”

HOW THE WILLIAMS sis­ters be­came ten­nis roy­alty is now sport­ing folk­lore. It be­gan with the se­cu­rity-guard dad who saw a ten­nis player win­ning $50,000 on TV and de­cided the game would be a ticket to a bet­ter life for his chil­dren – two of whom, Venus and Ser­ena, were yet to be born. His girls would go on to spend count­less hours on raggedy pub­lic ten­nis courts in the no­to­ri­ous LA sub­urb of Comp­ton, be­ing drilled not only in the sport but also char­ac­ter traits cru­cial to crack­ing an up­tight and thor­oughly white-skinned game: self-dis­ci­pline, men­tal for­ti­tude, un­quench­able spirit.

But Richard Williams also preached bal­ance. Ten­nis was im­por­tant – daily prac­tices lasted hours – but so was faith and ed­u­ca­tion. “I re­ally like how I grew up,” says Williams, a de­vout Je­ho­vah’s Wit­ness. “I had a lot of hu­mil­ity. No mat­ter what’s hap­pened, I am the most level-headed per­son you will ever meet. I am no bet­ter than any­one else.”

The Williams fam­ily takeover of ten­nis was partly due to ex­tra­or­di­nary – some might say hard­core – par­ent­ing. Now their youngest daugh­ter and her fi­ancé, Red­dit founder Alexis Oha­nian, have per­haps a big­ger chal­lenge ahead. Both broke through as out­siders (Oha­nian was the Brook­lyn-born child of mi­grants, and grand­child of refugees from the Ar­me­nian Geno­cide), but their child will be the ul­ti­mate in­sider. “It’s some­thing we are work­ing on: ‘How do we keep our baby hum­ble?’” Williams says. “We haven’t come up with an an­swer yet, but hav­ing a strong spir­i­tual back­ground helps. I re­ally think we have to keep ref­er­enc­ing the im­por­tance of hu­mil­ity.”

Williams learnt she was preg­nant while in Mel­bourne on Jan­uary 12, less than a week be­fore the Aus­tralian Open be­gan and just weeks af­ter Oha­nian pro­posed. She had been feel­ing strange – and a lit­tle bit nau­seous – and was pre­par­ing for a dance event with Aus­tralian bra com­pany Ber­lei, for which she is the brand am­bas­sador, when she did a preg­nancy test in the bath­room. Her heart “dropped into her stom­ach” and she spent the day in a daze. She’d al­ways wanted to have kids; she just hadn’t planned for it to hap­pen then.

She did six tests, all pos­i­tive. Five days later, she played her first match of the tour­na­ment. Eleven days af­ter that, she won her 23rd sin­gles grand slam, beat­ing sis­ter Venus in straight sets.

Williams only told a hand­ful of peo­ple about the preg­nancy, in­clud­ing her agent Jill Smoller. “It wasn’t the most re­lax­ing grand slam, let’s just say that,” Smoller tells Stel­lar. “I don’t know many peo­ple who could’ve com­part­men­talised and had the fo­cus she had. I’m still not sure how she man­aged – with the heat, and the emo­tional and phys­i­cal toll of a grand slam.”

For the first time, Williams is tak­ing a break from ten­nis that has not been forced by ill­ness or mis­ad­ven­ture. It has been lib­er­at­ing; she’s been hang­ing out at home in Florida, walk­ing and cy­cling and pur­su­ing myr­iad other in­ter­ests – her fash­ion com­pany, busi­ness ven­tures and new board po­si­tion at con­sumer sur­vey start-up Sur­vey­mon­key.

She and Oha­nian are re­port­edly to marry in the North­ern Hemi­sphere’s au­tumn. Williams has al­ready had a baby shower (Meghan Markle is said to have can­celled at the last minute, to spend time with Prince Harry at the polo). De­spite once say­ing her dream was to cre­ate wed­ding dresses, Williams has no plans to de­sign her own. “The brides­maids, maybe.”

An early Septem­ber due date looms (her camp won’t re­veal spe­cific tim­ing), and when Stel­lar meets a heav­ily preg­nant Williams in her home­town of Palm Beach, Florida, her belly is ripe, fa­tigue is set­ting in, and the weight of her ex­pec­tant body has slowed her down. She slept rest­lessly the night be­fore, strug­gling to turn over in bed.

At the end of a full day’s film­ing an on­line cam­paign cel­e­brat­ing 100 years of Ber­lei, she is ex­hausted, but her spark re­turns when dis­cussing her fi­ancé’s up­com­ing “Daddy’s class”, in which he will learn the ba­sics of baby han­dling. “Who knows, maybe it’s a gam­bling class, maybe they hang out and have beers or watch sport,” Williams jokes. She is ac­tu­ally a lit­tle en­vi­ous. “I have never been around ba­bies,” she ad­mits. “I need a Baby 101 class – they don’t have one for the women! He’ll prob­a­bly know more [than me] af­ter his four-hour course.” She’s plan­ning to breast­feed (“I like to do things nat­u­ral”) and has an army of en­thu­si­as­tic as­sis­tants in her mother and three older sis­ters, who she says are “al­most too into it. It’s like, re­lax, you’ll all have time.”

Williams will take the rest of the year off com­pet­i­tive ten­nis, and says she’ll take things one day at a time, but still plans to com­pete at next Jan­uary’s Aus­tralian Open. Smoller is al­ready talk­ing to reps at lead-up tour­na­ments. If it comes off, says Williams, “I would imag­ine [the baby] would come ev­ery­where with me.”

Like most women on the thresh­old of par­ent­hood, she’s think­ing – and wor­ry­ing – about the kind of mother she’ll be. “I al­ways want to be the best at what I [do], so I am a lit­tle ner­vous,” she says. Does she har­bour am­bi­tions to raise a fu­ture ten­nis champ of her own? “What­ever they want to do, they can do,” Williams says. “If they want to be a pi­ano player, I’m here to sup­port them. I’m not go­ing to say, ‘You have to play ten­nis.’ I wouldn’t even put a ten­nis racket in their hand.that may be a lit­tle bit of pres­sure. What they want to do is up to them.”

THE PART­NER­SHIP BE­TWEEN the world’s great­est fe­male ath­lete and an Aussie bra com­pany be­gan in 2006, when Williams’s mother Oracene Price vis­ited Myer in Mel­bourne to buy a sports bra for her daugh­ter. She has worn Ber­lei ever since; a few years ago, their part­ner­ship be­came of­fi­cial.

It’s an im­pres­sive coup for a com­pany that’s pri­mar­ily fo­cused on Aus­trala­sia, but Williams likes the bras and sim­ply wants to spread the word. “She does not do what she doesn’t want to do, and she’s not good at be­ing fake,” says Smoller. “The bras are part of who she is. She doesn’t play with­out them.”

Williams, who loves an on-court fash­ion state­ment and prefers to pre­serve her fe­male sil­hou­ette, likes that Ber­lei bras sup­port the shape of the breast rather than crush it like most sports bras. “It’s called sin­gle-breast en­cap­su­la­tion,” says Ber­lei mar­ket­ing man­ager Zoe Hayes. “I call it anti-mono­boob.” Ber­lei doesn’t do much per­sonal tai­lor­ing for Williams, but “we do make sure we are dye­ing for her skin”. They were the first Aus­tralian com­mer­cial brand to cre­ate a ma­ter­nity bra and have sent her a big box of them.

Ber­lei sits along­side Nike, In­tel and Ga­torade on Williams’s list of am­bas­sador­ships. But her busi­ness in­ter­ests reach fur­ther than that. She has in­vest­ments in the Mi­ami Dol­phins and the UFC. She has a fash­ion line (Anna Win­tour gives her feed­back). She has dab­bled in act­ing. Smoller says it’s this di­ver­sity of in­ter­ests that has helped Williams achieve longevity. “The fact she is able to shift her mind to things away from ten­nis al­lows her to be ex­cited, en­er­gised and fo­cused when she is on-court,” she says. And Williams agrees: “Ten­nis is great, it’s won­der­ful,

“I think that giv­ing birth will give me more strength… I feel like I’ll be ready for any­thing”

I am so happy to be good at it, but… it doesn’t de­fine who I am.”

Out­side in­ter­ests also give her a break from the re­lent­less pres­sure, which Smoller be­lieves fans un­der­es­ti­mate. “[Williams] is not al­lowed to lose,” she says. “If she [does], it’s break­ing news; if she wins, it’s just a re­lief – she was sup­posed to win. But that doesn’t just hap­pen, you have to ac­tu­ally get out there and do it. The per­son you’re play­ing gen­er­ally plays the best match of their life, so you have to be on it ev­ery time.”

EVEN AF­TER WIN­NING 23 sin­gles grand slams – beat­ing St­effi Graf’s record of 22 – and 39 in to­tal (in­clud­ing mixed and women’s dou­bles), de­bate still rages over whether Williams is the best fe­male ten­nis player in his­tory – or sim­ply the best ten­nis player in his­tory. In June, John Mcen­roe said she would be, “like, 700” if she played on the men’s tour (via Twit­ter, Williams told him to leave her alone – she was busy try­ing to have a baby).

While Williams doesn’t find such con­ver­sa­tions bor­ing, she does won­der why com­men­ta­tors con­stantly pit her against other peo­ple, in­stead of us­ing her record as the yard­stick. “Why are they not com­par­ing Roger [Fed­erer] to me?” she says. “There are bar­ri­ers I hope to break so my baby, whether boy or girl, won’t have to live un­der those stip­u­la­tions.”

Williams has long been a cru­sader for women’s is­sues – ed­u­ca­tion, do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, the pay gap and body im­age. Many young women now shun the word, but she says “I def­i­nitely am a fem­i­nist. I like to stick up for women and women’s rights. So many things hap­pen and I just think, ‘Wow, why don’t we have a chance?’ If that makes me a fem­i­nist, I am proud to be one.”

Af­ter Face­book COO and Lean In au­thor Sh­eryl Sand­berg’s hus­band died in 2015, Williams – who lost el­dest sis­ter Ye­tunde in a drive-by shoot­ing in 2003 – helped her through her grief. They hadn’t been ter­ri­bly close be­fore­hand, but Williams thought it im­por­tant to show women they can be pub­lic about their sup­port of other women. “Women get a rep that we don’t,” she tells Stel­lar. “Not true. I sit in the locker room and see women talk­ing all the time. We need to put it out there that, by the way, I do sup­port this per­son, I do want to call Sh­eryl twice, three times a week to make sure she’s OK.”

Williams won’t be the first woman to re­turn to pro­fes­sional ten­nis af­ter hav­ing a baby. Mar­garet Court, Evonne Goolagong Caw­ley and most re­cently Kim Cli­jsters, all won a grand slam as moth­ers. Some play­ers say the new role im­proves their game, be­cause it gives them some­thing else to think about. “I think she is go­ing to re­ceive a new in­fu­sion of en­ergy and power from this,” says Smoller.

At 35, Williams is near­ing re­tire­ment age for a ten­nis player. But, Smoller says, “As long as she hates to lose and en­joys the fight, she can play for as long as she wants to play.” Smoller also be­lieves that what­ever post-ten­nis in­car­na­tion Williams takes on, she will be no less com­pelling to watch.

Williams her­self doesn’t know yet. “If you’d asked me 10 years ago where I’d be in 10 years, I would have said I’m go­ing to be re­tired and have a fam­ily. Ten years from now? Hope­fully I will have more kids. I would like to sit on an­other board or two… and pro­mote di­ver­sity, both eth­nic and sex di­ver­sity, and hope­fully break down bar­ri­ers for lots of peo­ple.”

She does see a time when fe­male ath­letes won’t be seen as some sort of sec­ondary cat­e­gory – they’ll just be ath­letes, plain and sim­ple. As to when that may be? “I don’t know. But if I have to bite the bul­let for the next gen­er­a­tion, I’m ready and will­ing. If I see some­one else come up and win more than me and do bet­ter, that’s what we want. That’s what we need. And that’s what I would like to see.”

THIS SPORT­ING LIFE (clock­wise from above left) Ser­ena (right) and Venus Williams at the Rio Olympics in 2016; the ten­nis great Oha­nian at the Met Gala in May; lift­ing the tro­phy at this year’s

SER­ENA WEARS Michael Lo Sordo trench, michaello sordo.com; Ber­lei bra and briefs, ber­lei.com.au

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